A talk given in San Diego, Berkeley, and Ann Arbor

Art, war and social revolution—Part 1

By David Walsh
31 May 2016

We are posting below the first part of an edited version of a presentation given at San Diego State University, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in April and May 2016.

A generation that has only known war

I would imagine that most of you here were born between 1990 and 2000, or perhaps 1985 and 2000. If you turn 20 in 2016, you would have been two at the time of the effort to impeach Bill Clinton through a manufactured sex scandal, four at the time of the hijacking of a national election by the Bush-Cheney forces, five by the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan, and seven or so at the time of the invasion of Iraq.

If you are 20, or even 25, the United States has been at war your entire conscious life. (I am somewhat arbitrarily taking 13 or 14 to be the age at which one becomes aware of the wider world, of political events.) For anyone born in 1988 or later, the US military has been embroiled in killing people on a daily basis his or her entire politically conscious life, with no end in sight. Quite the contrary.

In the category I just referred to, those born in the US from 1988 through 2003—i.e., those presently conscious of events, a total that obviously excludes the very young—there are some 65 million people.

Of course, one could take the first Gulf War in 1990-1991, the US assault on Iraq, as the event that truly opened the epoch of renewed imperialist militarism and neo-colonialism in which we still live. Some 104 million people were born from 1977 through 2003. Their, or your, conscious experience encompasses a quarter-century of war or near-war, covert operations, murderous sanctions, “black sites,” torture and apologies for torture, drone strikes—and threats of new and wider wars.

Bill Clinton in 1999

The Clinton administration intervened in dozens of countries during the 1990s, often in the guise of “humanitarian interventions.”

A partial list of those countries:

* Iraq—both military intervention to “assist” the Kurds in northern Iraq, no-fly zones, bombing campaigns and devastating economic sanctions, which led to large-scale death and destruction;

* Operations in many portions of the former Yugoslavia, including Operation Deliberate Force in 1995, the three-week bombing of the Bosnian Serb positions, and culminating in the devastating bombing of Serbia and Serb positions in Kosovo in 1999;

* Somalia (Operation Restore Hope, 1992-1995)—an intervention that began under the first Bush administration); and

* Haiti (Operation Uphold Democracy, 1994-1995)—20,000 US troops eventually deployed to restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president.

Then there are those operations launched by the Bush administration and continued by Obama:

* October 2001 to the present: War in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom, etc.)

* March 2003 to the present: War in Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn)

Also under Bush: Yemen (2002), Philippines (2002); Côte d’Ivoire (2002); Liberia (2003); Georgia and Djibouti (2003); Haiti (2004); Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya (2004); Lebanon (2006); Somalia (2007); South Ossetia, Georgia (2008); Somalia (2011); Uganda (2011); Jordan (2012); Turkey (2012); Chad (2012); Mali (2013); South Korean Crisis (2013); and Cameroon (2015)

* 2004 to the present: US drone strikes to aid the War in North-West Pakistan (thousands of deaths)

* 2010 to the present: US drone strikes in Yemen (thousands of deaths)

* 2011: Libya (Operation Odyssey Dawn)

* 2011: Assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan (Operation Neptune Spear)

* 2014 to the present: American-led intervention in Syria

* 2014 to the present: Intervention against ISIS

In 2004, Richard Grimmett, a specialist in international security with the foreign affairs, defense and trade division of the Congressional Research Service, wrote a document, “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798–2004,” detailing each episode. Literary qualities aside, it is an impressive work. It takes Grimmett 7,816 words to describe US military operations abroad from 1798 through 1991. It takes him 7,476 words—nearly as many—to describe US military operations abroad from 1992 through 2004 ! An orgy of US imperialist violence.

War as an explosive factor in American society

War, in fact, is an explosive factor in American society. Twenty-five years of unending war, militarist violence, aggression and verbal threats. That violence is communicated through the media, the entertainment business, in fact, through every pore of official society.

The Costs of War Project at Brown University has made certain estimates on the death and destruction in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan only since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. (The US sanctions in the 1990s alone cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives.)

George W. Bush in 2003

The authors estimate that 370,000 people have died in direct war violence. Of those, approximately 210,000 are civilians.

A leading body that studies such things, the secretariat of the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, estimates conservatively that in contemporary conflicts there are four indirect deaths to every direct death (due to malnutrition, disease, neglect, stress, etc.). That would conservatively put the death toll from the wars since 2001 at between 1.5 and 2 million human beings.

Some 6,900 US soldiers have died in the wars. “New disability claims continue to pour into the Department of Veterans Affairs, with 970,000 disability claims registered as of 31 March 2014. Many deaths and injuries among US contractors have not been reported as required by law, but it is likely that at least 6,900 have been killed.” (The Costs of War Project)

As of 2014, 2.8 million veterans had served in only the first Gulf War and another 2.6 million in only the second Gulf War, but there are another 1.6 million veterans who have served in one of those conflicts as well as another. That adds up to 7 million veterans of “the Gulf Wars era,” 1990 to 2014. How many other human beings has that total affected? Spouses, children, parents, siblings. Twenty, thirty million or more.

There are the physically mutilated and the psychically mutilated. Hundreds of thousands of veterans are affected with traumatic brain injury (TBI), and hundreds of thousands suffer from war-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Bush and Barack Obama in November 2008

These have been wars fought overwhelmingly by the working class, by the impoverished, by young people from small towns, the inner cities, rural areas, often the most depressed and culturally backward regions. These are essentially “economic conscripts.” Recruitment rates in rural and exurban counties across the United States are well above the national average. In rural counties in Southern states, recruitment rates were more than 44 percent above the national average during the early 2000s.

The towns and cities with the highest death rates—ranked in a 2007 report—are:

1. Valdosta, Georgia (126,305 Metropolitan area population in 2007)

2. Kokomo, Indiana (100,877)

3. Bismarck, North Dakota (101,138)

4. Casper, Wyoming (70,401)

5. Altoona, Pennsylvania (126,494)

6. Mansfield, Ohio (127,010)

7. Corvallis, Oregon (79,061)

8. Cheyenne, Wyoming (85,384)

9. Elizabethtown, Kentucky (110,878)

10. Salisbury, Maryland (117,761)

Altoona was once a rail center; Kokomo is identified with the auto industry; Mansfield was home to Westinghouse and GM.

Downtown Kokomo, Indiana

This is from a 2003 article in the Austin [Texas] American-Statesman (“Iraq war dead: a sacrifice of small towns”):

Karen Henry has two boys in Iraq. She spread photos on the Formica table of the Coahoma [a town of 900 in western Texas] Dairy Queen. …

Karen graduated from Coahoma High School nearly 30 years ago. She works at an oil-field service company.

“There wasn’t anything here.” She was explaining why two of her three boys enlisted. (The third, Murphy, had asthma; otherwise he might be in Iraq, too.) Her kids would hang out in front of the Town and Country convenience store until they “got run off.”

They were “bored, and they knew there was no place to get a job and that college was too expensive.”

And then, she said, “90 percent of them start drinking and partying.”

The local police came to a party Steven was attending. He raced out a back door. “He was walking back to his cousin’s house, and he stayed up all night,” Karen Henry recalled. “And that was it. He wanted more out of life.”

Steven went down I-20 to the recruiting station in Midland and enlisted.

This is the stuff of terrible human tragedy.

The impact of 25 years of war and social decline on everyday life in America is staggering. As a recent WSWS perspective noted: “This society has become so brutalized that, according to one report published last week, 200,000 Americans have been murdered in the last 15 years alone. The United States is a country at war, not just with the Middle East, but with itself.”

From the Wall Street Journal: “The US represents less than 5 percent of the 7.3 billion global population but accounted for 31 percent of global mass shooters during the period from 1966 to 2012, more than any other country, [one expert said], adding that he defines a mass shooter as one who killed at least four victims. The 90 killers who carried out mass shootings in the U.S. amounted to five times as many as the next highest country, the Philippines, according to his research.” There was an average of one shooting per week, on a school or college campus, in 2015, according to ABC News.

Even though the wars are not spoken about, by any of the leading candidates, including Bernie Sanders, that does not mean they have no impact on popular consciousness and behavior. The ruling elite and their complacent, subservient media seem to think that because an issue is not framed neatly in a 30-second item on the evening news, it does not exist. This is self-delusion. The wars are gnawing away at American society.

War is now the “normal.” It is an element of everyday life. And no one is prepared for what is to come. The drive to war against Iran, Russia and China has implications that are unimaginable.

There are no foreign bases permanently located on US soil. However, the American military officially acknowledges some 800 bases around the world, in some 80 countries, “including Aruba and Australia, Bahrain and Bulgaria, Colombia, Kenya, and Qatar, among many other places. Although few Americans realize it, the United States likely has more bases in foreign lands than any other people, nation, or empire in history.”

David Vine, Base Nation, writes, “The Pentagon’s overseas presence is actually even larger. There are US troops or other military personnel in about 160 foreign countries and territories. … And don’t forget the Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers. Each should be considered a kind of floating base, or as the Navy tellingly refers to them, ‘four and a half acres of sovereign US territory.’ Finally, above the seas, one finds a growing military presence in space.”

Great Britain has seven bases and France five in former colonies. Russia has eight in former Soviet republics. Japan has a base in Djibouti, alongside US and French bases. South Korea, India, Chile, Turkey and Israel each reportedly have at least one foreign base. There are also reports that China may be seeking its first base overseas. “In total,” Vine writes, “these countries probably have about 30 installations abroad, meaning that the United States has approximately 95 [actually more than 96] percent of the world’s foreign bases.” To speak of Russian and Chinese imperialism under these conditions is absurd.

The consequences for American society and culture

What have been the overall consequences already for American society and culture of decades of continuous warfare? It would take far more than this one talk to adequately answer that.

I hope some of the facts and figures I’ve presented so far are suggestive. But when one is discussing the character and quality of everyday life, its profound deterioration over time, and in the context of a discussion of art, such facts and figures remain a little cold.

It is precisely at this moment, ironically, that one wishes one could point to a film or novel, a drama or series of paintings, that somehow captured this historical transformation in concrete imagery, that provided a key to understanding the essential truth about the past several decades, or at least critical aspects of it. One of our chief difficulties—and criticisms—today is that there has been no such work, or very, very little of it.

Speaking very broadly, the past quarter-century has seen the emergence of a profoundly brutalized and brutalizing culture in the US. Never in history has so much degradation (or trivia) been combined with such advanced technologies. There is hardly an anti-social or psychotic impulse that has not made its way to the public by the most up-to-date means—and hardly one that has not found academic or intellectual justification, no less! Human beings in the future will look back on all this with astonishment.

War has become perpetual. In the 20th century by contrast, wars were shorter, horrible, they were exceptions to the rule. They were considered a terrible waste of human resources, horribly destructive. My father’s generation fought in World War II, my grandfather’s in World War I. Men (and they were mostly men) got out of the military, and they never wanted to put on a uniform again. Often they didn’t want to talk about the entire experience.

War films and novels

I’d like to speak briefly about a number of films and novels that stand out for their treatment of the wars of the 20th century. I have neither the expertise nor the time to speak about other art forms, but I believe the same general trends would show themselves.

When one thinks of World War I, certain films come to mind, especially Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion from 1937 (although for the most part I will be discussing American films and books), All Quiet on the Western Front (both Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel and Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film version), Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929—also turned into films in 1932, directed by Frank Borzage, and 1957, directed by Charles Vidor) and, much later, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957).

In Renoir’s Grand Illusion, a couple of French soldiers escape from a prisoner of war camp. They take refuge in a farmhouse belonging to a German woman, who has lost her husband and three brothers at battles that she describes bitterly as “our greatest victories.” The French soldier and the German widow fall in love, but the situation conspires against them.

This theme of the fraternization between “enemies,” of the commonality of interests among the various peoples, as opposed to those organizing and running the mass killing, is a major theme of World War I films and books in particular. It countered the ferocious nationalism and chauvinism that accompanied the outbreak of the mass slaughter of the war in 1914.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

All Quiet on the Western Front tells the story of a young German soldier, who is urged on by his patriotic schoolteacher to join the army. The book is about the horrible psychological and physical suffering caused by the First World War. The soldiers die over a few hundred yards of ground. At one point, the hero stabs an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat, and watches him die, agonizingly, over the course of several hours.

Eventually, in Remarque’s novel, the young German addresses the soldier’s corpse: “But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? … Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up—take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.”

The Nazis burned the book after they came to power in 1933.

This effort to “humanize” the enemy, to endow him or her with familiar features, to recognize that he or she is like “us,” stands in opposition to the current trend in most Hollywood films, to turn Arabs, Russians, Chinese, Iranians, into subhumans—to inure the population to the possibility of killing massive numbers of them.

World War II, From Here to Eternity

World War II was ideologically sold to the population as a war against fascism, and there was a powerful democratic sentiment felt by many of those who fought, but it remained an imperialist war, a war fought between the great powers for the division and redivision of the world. The anti-fascist, anti-totalitarian theme found expression in many films, not only made in the immediate war years, but extending into the subsequent decade and into other genres (Westerns, film noir, science fiction).

There are innumerable memorable films from this era. Some that come to mind: Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940); Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Saboteur (1942); Frank Borzage’s Three Comrades (1938) and The Mortal Storm (1940); Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt (1941) and Hangmen Also Die! (1943); John Huston’s Across the Pacific (1942); Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942); Raoul Walsh’s Desperate Journey (1942); John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945); William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); Henry King’s Twelve O’Clock High (1949); Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity (1953) and many others.

From Here to Eternity (1953)

Even many of the propaganda films made during the war, including Why We Fight (a series of seven films, mostly directed by Frank Capra), were done with some artistry. The series includes one devoted to the sacrifices of the Soviet people.

Among the novels, several stand out, including Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), set in the war in the South Pacific. Mailer treats the class system in the military, the power structures that affect every aspect of military life, along with a host of other themes. He was a socialist at the time, and briefly around the edges of the Trotskyist movement.

Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 took the author from 1953 to 1961 to write. Heller coined a phrase that sums up a situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules established by those on top.

I would like to spend a few minutes on From Here to Eternity, James Jones’s novel, published in 1951, and Fred Zinnemann’s 1953 film, with Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra.

Jones’s 850-page novel is uneven, overwritten in many parts, but it contains fascinating and revealing elements, which tell us a good deal about America and the American soldier.

The book centers on a US army infantry company stationed in Hawaii on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The principal figure is Robert E. Lee Prewitt (played by Clift in the film), the son of a Harlan County coal miner, who is incredibly stubborn in his principles and conduct. His superiors only half-jokingly refer to him time and time again as the “Bolshevik.” Sgt. Milt Warden (Lancaster) is another central character. The book radiates with hatred of the officer class, almost universally treated as selfish, incompetent and lazy, or fascistic.

Extremely brutal events occur in From Here to Eternity, including the beating of one soldier to death by guards in the stockade.

James Jones (1921-1977) wrote From Here to Eternity, Some Came Running (1957), The Thin Red Line (1962)—all of which were made into interesting films—along with a number of other novels and stories.

James Jones's novel (1951)

Zinnemann’s film version of From Here to Eternity has many remarkable features, and it captures certain of the novel’s themes. The principal actors all do serious work. However, the US military and the Production Code Office censored the script and insisted on significant changes. The chief officer-bully is forced to resign in the film, as the army’s Inspector General comes in and clears out all the “bad apples.” Zinnemann, in his autobiography, described the scene in which Prewitt’s chief tormentor is called on the carpet “the worst moment in the film, resembling a [US military] recruiting short” and added, “It makes me sick every time I see it.”

In any event, I would like to cite a few passages from Jones’s From Here to Eternity that might provide the flavor of the novel.

About a third of the way through the novel, Prewitt does some soul searching, in response to the hard time he is being given by his superiors (because he won’t toe the line in various ways). He thinks to himself:

But he had always believed in fighting for the underdog, against the top dog. … So that he had gone right on, unable to stop believing that if the Communists were the underdog in Spain then he believed in fighting for the Communists in Spain; but that if the Communists were the top dog back home in Russia and the (what would you call them in Russia? the traitors, I guess) traitors were the bottom dog, then he believed in fighting for the traitors and against the Communists. He believed in fighting for the Jews in Germany, and against the Jews in Wall Street and Hollywood. And if the Capitalists were top dog in America and the proletariat the underdog, then he believed in fighting for the proletariat against the Capitalists. This too-ingrained-to-be-forgotten philosophy of life of his had led him, a Southerner, to believe in fighting for the Negroes against the Whites everywhere, because the Negroes were nowhere the top dog, at least as yet.

Prewitt goes on:

But where, you ask, does it put you politically? What are your politics? … [I]f we had to answer it, truthfully, under oath (let us suppose that Mr [Martin] Dies and his Un-American Activities Committee called you up…), then I would say that politically you are a sort of super arch-revolutionary, the kind that made the Revolution in Russia and that the Communists are killing now, a sort of perfect criminal type, very dangerous, a mad dog that loves underdogs.

A little later in the novel, a chilling discussion takes place among a number of officers, in which one young brigadier general, Sam Slater, essentially proclaims the need for military dictatorship in the US: “I, and men like me, are forced to assume the responsibility of governing. If organized society and civilization as we know it is to continue at all, not only must there be a consolidation of power but there must be a complete unquestioned control to head it.”

Slater goes on: “But when that day comes, we must have utterly complete control, as they over there [in Germany, Japan, USSR] already have complete control. Up to now, it has been handled by the great corporations like Ford and General Motors and US Steel and Standard Oil. … But now consolidation is the watchword, and the corporations are not powerful enough to bring it off—even if they were willing to consolidate, which they are not. Only the military can consolidate them under one central control.”

In The Thin Red Line, set on Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, during the fierce fighting between American and Japanese forces in November 1942, Jones treats the official claims about the war with considerable disdain. It is a dark novel, at times rather cynical, but often liberating in its lack of cant.

Early on, Sgt. Edward Welsh (as Jones explains, the reincarnation of the Warden character in From Here to Eternity) mutters to himself shortly after his unit has landed on Guadalcanal:

‘Property. Property. All for property.’ Because that was what it was; what it was all about. One man’s property, or another man’s. One nation’s, or another nation’s. It had all been done, and was being done, for property. One nation wanted, felt it needed, probably did need, more property; and the only way to get it was to take it away from those other nations who had already laid claim to it. There just wasn’t any more unclaimed property on this planet, that was all. And that was all it was.

In all of Jones’s novels about World War II, including Whistle (1978), left unfinished at the time of his death, the more perceptive soldiers instinctively sense something foul about the war, something horribly wrong with the official picture. They are outraged or depressed, often tormented by their experiences. Without having a worked-out alternative view, or fully grasping the realities, of course, they don’t believe in any of the claims being made about the great struggle for “democracy.”

In Whistle, for example, a central character, a wounded soldier in a hospital tells another, “For example, I can see how in ten years from now all these people who are fighting each other so desperately now will be back at peace and friendly. And then they’ll be making business deals and treaties with each other. And everybody getting rich. Just like nothing had happened. But all those guys who are dead, young guys like me, guys like you, will still be dead.”

I’d like to make a brief comment on The Best Years of Our Lives. This three-hour film about veterans returning home after World War II was very popular. Astonishingly, it sold 55 million tickets in the US, at a time when the American population numbered 141 million, and the adult population 106 million! Even today, remarkably, after all the blockbusters in recent decades, it remains the sixth-most-attended film in British history. It obviously struck a chord.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Wyler’s film, perhaps above all, is a story about men reconnecting with women after war. There is the deep psychological trauma of individuals who have been deprived of love and find it hard to re-establish relationships. This was a mass phenomenon: returning home, getting out of uniform.

Fred Derry (played by Dana Andrews), just out of the army, wants nothing more than to get into and stay in civilian clothes. In one scene, his status-seeking wife (Virginia Mayo) asks him to wear his uniform when they go out in the evening. He hates the idea.

Derry leaves behind with his father, Pat Derry, a bunch of papers, which includes citations for his medals, written by high-ranking officials in the military. The Andrews character wants nothing to do with them.

This exchange occurs:

Pat Derry: You forgot these, son.

Fred Derry: Oh, I don’t want ’em, Pop.

Pat Derry: What are they?

Fred Derry: Fancy words that don’t mean anything. You can throw ’em away.

Pat Derry: Say, these are citations for your medals. Why, Freddy, you never showed them to us.

Fred Derry: Those things came in the packages with K rations [individual daily combat food ration introduced by the US army during World War II].

The Korean War: “I was wrong…this war is going to last a long time.”

American films about the Korean War tend to be bleak, perhaps because it was the first war US imperialism lost, or at least in which it was fought to a standstill. In many of the films, US forces are taking, or have just taken a beating. There is a lot of anti-communist rubbish and patriotism, of course, but the overall mood is one of gloom and disillusionment.

One thinks of Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951)—characterized by Fuller’s usual dynamism and emotionalism; Joseph H. Lewis’s Retreat, Hell! (1952)—in which a genuine US retreat is called a “tactical withdrawal” or some such phrase; Mark Robson’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954)—a somewhat turgid film, but William Holden is memorable as a lawyer forced back into service as a bomber pilot who dies an ignominious death in a ditch; Anthony Mann’s Men in War (1957)—which I want to spend a moment describing; Pork Chop Hill (1959), with Gregory Peck, Rip Torn and Martin Landau, in which a meaningless, bloody battle is fought while peace talks are going on; Denis Sanders’s War Hunt (1961)—the US military makes use of a psychopath as a “special ops” commando; and Burt Topper’s War is Hell (1963)—a megalomaniacal sergeant sends his men into an enemy bunker, neglecting to tell them that a ceasefire has been declared.

Toward the close of Mann’s Men in War, Platoon commander Lieutenant Benson (Robert Ryan) muses forlornly, “I was wrong…this war is going to last a long time.” When the film opens, Benson’s exhausted, depleted unit has been cut off from the rest of the US forces, who have just been “clobbered” and lost 400 men in a single battle. Benson’s group encounters cynical Sergeant “Montana” (Aldo Ray) and a shell-shocked colonel (Robert Keith) who is unable to speak.

Men in War (1957)

For the sergeant, “the war is over.” He’s a brutal type, without compassion or feeling. The Robert Ryan character comments at one point, “God help us if it takes your kind to win this war.” Almost everyone is killed by the end, including the colonel (who awakes from his catatonic state only to rush into the fighting and almost immediately get killed), except for the sergeant and the lieutenant. In the final scene, Ryan reads the names of the dead, while the Ray character throws their medals down the side of a hill.

There is nothing here that would encourage patriotism or national morale.

To be continued

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